Anatomy of a Learner

by Jon Milhon ’87, Ph.D.

It was a summer morning, and I was helping my research students when I received a phone call. The caller explained that she had a daughter who had committed to study biology at a local Christian university, but she wanted her daughter to come to APU. I had never met either of them. In fact, she called me by chance and wanted to know if I would talk with her daughter.

I get to talk with a lot of high school students, and I have a policy about never talking negatively about other universities. I know APU is not for everyone, and many other universities are doing great work (especially the one that the woman’s daughter had decided to attend). I prefer to underpromise and overdeliver as opposed to a hard sell. I told the woman that I would be happy to meet with her daughter, but I would tell her that she had chosen to attend a fine university and that she would get a great education there. I would stay true to my self-imposed policy—no hard sell, no attempt to talk her out of her choice. I would just answer her questions.

Sarah O’Dell ’16 arrived at my office alone, and even though her mother told her what I would say, I started by congratulating Sarah on her choice of university. In answering Sarah’s questions, it became apparent that she wanted to become a physician, so we talked about all the things APU has to offer pre-med students. Sarah mentioned that her most influential high school teacher was a biology teacher who graduated from APU named Mr. Robinson. I just about fell out of my chair. You mean Michael Robinson? The same Michael who fell asleep in my Cell Biology class? Evidently, Mr. Robinson (’03, M.A. ’05) has become an outstanding science teacher and Christian mentor.

Our conversation ended with a tour of our fabulous new science building and an offer to answer any other questions she might have. Sarah did not give me any indication during our conversation that she was having second thoughts, but she called her mom on the way back to the elevator and said she had changed her mind—she was coming to APU!

I saw Sarah in the fall semester and I got to hear how our conversation the previous summer was the deciding factor in choosing APU. Over the semester, Sarah came by the office a dozen times. From our first conversation, I could see that Sarah was confident and intelligent, but she took it to a whole new level one day when she came in after one of her General Education courses. She was angry. She had just left a class where they had discussed worldviews, and she vehemently disagreed with the students in the discussion. She plopped herself down in my chair and began to pick apart their arguments. I asked her where she learned such sound argumentation, and she attributed much of that to Mr. Robinson. I was so impressed that I invited Sarah to work with my research team.

Sarah brought lab skills, the ability to think critically, and a work ethic that are rarely seen, especially in freshmen. Other professors could see this, too. She mentioned that her General Education professors often wanted her to change to their respective majors. Sarah excelled in these courses, not just because she was a good student, but because she loved the process of becoming broadly educated and believes it is connected to her calling. A Spanish minor followed. Then study away in Oxford fueled her passion for literature and C.S. Lewis. Eventually, her love for and proficiency in research got her thinking about pursuing a Ph.D. The awards began to come in as well: financial scholarships; the Outstanding Biology Graduate Award; a research internship at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Bethesda, Maryland; and an award from the Honors College to start collecting books for a personal library.

Sarah has decided to pursue a joint MD/Ph.D. degree, but she intentionally took a two-year detour to earn a master’s degree in English in APU’s new program. Many people questioned her decision; they wondered if she doubted the choice to become a physician. There was never a doubt. It gives a good picture of Sarah—she is an academic, and she loves to learn. The experience has added fuel to the fire of her love for all things liberal arts, and she has discovered firsthand what many people in medical schools are realizing: being passionate about the liberal arts will make her a better physician and researcher. That should be no surprise; proponents of the liberal arts have been saying this for years.

Sarah has been accepted to MD/Ph.D. programs and still has more interviews. She still comes by my office regularly and always has another lecture, conference, or symposium to tell me about. One of the highlights of last semester was taking Sarah and my daughter, Jenna, to a rare place in today’s world: a used-book store. Sarah needed help spending part of the Honors College award and Jenna, being a book fanatic, was thrilled to help.